It was a dash for freedom that was caught on camera and captivated the world: a North Korean defector being peppered with bullets as he tried to flee his authoritarian homeland at the Demiiltarized Zone. But in his first television interview with a U.S. broadcaster, defector Oh Chong Song said he does not blame his former colleagues for shooting him five times as he ran for the border in November 2017.
“In their situation I would have fired the gun. It’s not a matter of friendship,” he told NBC News on Monday, almost 18 months after his dramatic escape. “I understand them because if I were in their shoes I would have done the same thing.”
On Nov. 13, 2017, surveillance cameras captured the moment Oh smashed through a military checkpoint in a green jeep and raced toward the DMZ, members of his own unit chasing him down. Had he been caught, Oh says he “would have been either sent to a concentration camp for political prisoners or, worse, executed by firing squad.”
His escape bid crunched to a halt yards from the boundary as his jeep became stuck in a ditch. With the chasing North Korean soldiers almost upon him, he climbed out of the car and started to run, the border just yards away.
“I was extremely terrified,” he said. “I watch this video once in a while and every time I see it, I realize the fact that I am alive is a miracle. Even I can’t believe something like this happened. … I can’t believe it’s me in the video.”
The footage shows Oh running between two trees, just as several North Korean soldiers scramble to take up positions behind him and open fire. The hail of bullets tore through Oh, at least five shots hitting him directly.
It took a moment for South Korean soldiers to crawl to him and drag him to cover. “I did think that I was going to die as I was lying there,” he said. “At this point, when they were coming to rescue me, I was unconscious.”
Doctors who operated on Oh said it was a “miracle” he survived. Among those credited with saving his life was Sgt. 1st Class Gopal Singh of San Antonio, Texas, a member of the medevac crew who flew Oh to a hospital in Suwon, the South Korean capital.
“I am truly grateful to him and I hope there will be an opportunity for me to meet him,” Oh said. “If I do, I want to thank him in person for everything.”